The most important question in addiction treatment, which is still unanswered, is how to test whether one will become an addict or not. Till date there is no test available to predict development of alcoholism in a person. But scientist and researchers in this field are conducting researches to at least predict some behaviors or biological indications that can help to predict the tendencies to develop alcoholism. Yale researchers used Pavlovian conditioning to predict addictive tendencies, now recently researchers at Duke University found that relation between stress, reward and threat can predict drinking problems.

Drug abuse is a complex disease determined by various factors, including both psychological and physiological components. Researchers consider stress is a major contributor to the initiation and continuation of drug use. The relationship between stress and addiction is mediated, at least in part, by common neuro chemical systems, such as the serotonin, dopamine, as well as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. A study at McGill University found that individuals with a family history of alcoholism display a dysfunction in stress management prior to the development of alcohol dependence, while other having no family history of alcoholism shows a dysfunction in stress management following the development of alcohol dependence.

The stress response is coordinated through two mechanisms. One is changed activities of neurotransmitters in different parts of the brain and the second is release of stress related hormones. Considering these two mechanisms, researchers conducted a study that describes an important phenomenon to predict drinking problems using MRI data which measures individual differences in the functioning of reward and threat circuits in the brain under stress. Study was conducted on 200 participants who exhibit a recent life stress (e.g., failing exams, trouble at home, bad relationships) leading to increased problem of drinking in individuals having a specific combination of neural circuit functioning. It was seen that problem drinking related to stress emerges only in students who have both a highly reactive reward circuitry (i.e., ventral striatum) and a hypo-reactive threat circuitry (i.e. amygdala).

Individuals having strong reward drive –that motivate someone to drink- and weak threat evaluation –that keeps away from drinking – when experience stress, have the highest tenancies for drug abuse. Ahmad Hariri puts it: “Imagine the push and pull of opposing drives when a mouse confronts a hunk of cheese in a trap. Too much drive for the cheese and too little fear of the trap leads to one dead mouse.” Yuliya Nikolova, who is the lead author of the study, thinks these findings may be useful to predict individuals at particularly high risk for developing alcohol use disorders in stress. In future this study can lead towards the development of biomarkers for drug abuse risks. Hariri adds: “We’re very excited about these findings as they nicely bring together our parallel programs of research on individual differences in threat and reward processes, and represent an extension of such individual differences into a real-world phenomenon.”


Cynthia Perkins

Jana Wrase

Nicos Makris